Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution


Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

On the religious question Hebertism was nothing but vain and superficial violence, incoherence and contradiction. From August to December 1793 a lively dechristianization movement was outlined. A portion of the revolutionary people rose up not only against non-juring priests and the church, but against Christianity itself. And they attempted to tear the very idea from men’s spirits by destroying the symbols and emblems that allowed it to enter thought through people’s eyes. It was a war on religion as a means of war on belief. It was priests that fanaticized the Vendée; it was the priests who were accomplices of the selfish rich in Lyon. The Revolution would only be assured; human liberty would only be definitive when the power controlled souls and forced them submit to all the tyrannies of the earth and heavens disappeared. And let us not distinguish between juring and non-juring priests, between constitutional priests and refractory ones. What did the constitutional priests do? What did they do in the Vendée, in Lyon, in Toulon, in Marseille, in Lozère? Either they were secret accomplices of the enemy through their inertia and timidity or they were powerless. Their semi-fanaticism had less of a hold on the ignorant than the wholehearted fanaticism of the others. If the constitutional priests didn’t serve as an expected diversion, if they didn’t serve as a caution useful to the Revolution among the believers and the simple, what was their role? And why would the revolution lend itself any longer to a compromise that was nothing but a dupery? For in order to handle the constitutional priests with care, in order not to offend their faith, they were forced to be gentle with the refractory priests. It wasn’t possible to get to the heart of questions and lay bare the roots of the falsehood that supports the entire church, both the constitutional and the refractory. Let us thus have done with this, and since fanaticism forms a thick layer covering intelligence impenetrable to reason, since it is pointless to talk to men who believe through machine-like habit, it is that machine-like habit that must be broken. It must be proved to these fools that the God they adore is nothing but impotence and nothingness, and in order to do this the instruments of his religion must be wrested from him. The sacred vases must be taken from him, they must be profaned in the sight of the heavens in order to prove to the simplest of fanatics the nullity of a God who doesn’t even know how to defend himself. Philosophy required centuries to liberate the spirit through the spirit; it is by force that the chains that were forged by ignorance, a form of slavery. There are the chalices and the monstrances, and a donkey wearing a stole, a miter on his head, beating his flanks with a host attached to his tail, showing off the ridiculousness of the old religion and forever disgusting the believers in a faith that lends itself to such degrading parodies.

The revolutionary people had grown familiar with the church, for patriotic meetings took place in them. The representatives on mission preached war on behalf of liberty from the pulpit, but how could they allow the enslavement of spirits, i.e., war against liberty, to occur within these same walls? All the vases, all the flames on the altar were the arms of counter-revolution: let them be smashed and melted so they could be made into weapons for the Revolution or to give a Revolution saturated with paper money the gold coin it needed. The bells had already been taken down from the towers, melted and made into canons, and the rope of the bell pulls had been made into the cordage of the ships outfitted by Jean Bon Saint-André for sea battles against the English.

But it wasn’t enough to brutalize religions: priests must be made to confess that they lied, that they had misled men. Taking their ornaments from them was a good thing, but having them reject their stoles and trample on them was even better. And the triumph of reason would be for the priests to de-priest themselves, that they reject the God so long announced by them and reveal to fanatics the emptiness of the tabernacle in which human illusion had resided for centuries. And there was a great triumph: Cloots, Léonard Bourdon and a handful of others convinced Gobel, the Bishop of Paris, to go to the Convention and abjure his functions. This was on November 7. Other abjurations followed. Great numbers of priests resigned, either through revolutionary enthusiasm, or because the Gospels, which they had gradually deprived of its natural colors, had become combined in an ambiguous grisaille with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, or to rid themselves of a function that every day became more difficult and falser, or through cowardice.

Chaumette had emerged victorious and the Commune, not wanting to leave the peoples’ imagination idle, instituted a great civic festival to replace the religious ones. It proclaimed the cult of Reason and on November 10, before the statue of liberty “raised in place of the former Holy Virgin,” voices were raised to celebrate the freeing of man. The Convention, invited in the evening for a repeat performance of the festival, went as a body to Notre Dame. Reason (in the person of Citizen Momoro) came down from her throne and embraced Laloy, the president of the Convention. Hebertism appeared to be master of Paris and the Revolution.

To be sure, there was possibly a certain grandeur in this radical and brutal attempt at dechristianization, and we can glimpse the theoretical justification that might have been attempted. The human spirit bears a heavy burden of superstitions and habits. If a violent shakeup could in one day make this age old burden fall from its shoulders, what a deliverance! How free humanity would be, and how much more boldly would intelligence enter into the mysteries of the world when the outdated, traditional forms of belief would have disappeared. Even the great religious interpretations of the universe would again become possible when they would no longer risk being confused through superficial analogies with superstitions of the past or be exploited by the cunning of the church to the profit of its domination. After all, force can smash beliefs that were only formed by automatism. Blind habit is also a form of force and the brief violence of the hour of liberation does nothing but abolish the effects of the slow and obscure violence of the centuries.

Yes, but the Hebertist operation could only succeed or be attempted under one condition: Hebertism had to take clear sides on the decisive question: did it simply want to mock and insult religion, or did it want to uproot it? If it only wanted to insult it the attempt was as sterile as it was base, and if it wanted to uproot it it had to openly proclaim that the freedom of religion inscribed in the constitution was an illusion and a danger. It had to think and say that Christian belief, the principle of servitude, had no right to affirm itself. It is only in the name of right that such profound revolutions can be carried out. If the Revolution didn’t have the courage to say “I don’t recognize Christianity’s right to exist and I will crush all of its manifestations, either collective or individual” then the war on religion was nothing but an ignominious display and the most vulgar tyranny. But Hebertism didn’t even pose the problem, and it pitifully wavered between demagogic violence ennobled by no principles and retractions dictated by foolishness and fear.

Fouché decided, in the memorable decree of October 9:

First Article — The ceremonies of the various religions can only be held in their respective temples.

Article 2 — The Republic, not recognizing a dominant or privileged religion, every religious emblem found on the roads, on squares, and generally in public places, will be destroyed.

Article 3 — Under penalty of imprisonment, it is forbidden to ministers and priests to appear with their costumes anywhere but in their temples.

Article 4 — In every municipality all dead citizens, of whatever religion, shall be taken to a place designated as the common grave covered by a funeral veil on which shall be painted Sleep, accompanied by a public officer, surrounded by their friends in mourning attire and a detachment of their brothers in arms.

Article 5 — The common place where their ashes shall repose shall be isolated from any habitation and planted with trees under whose shade a statue of Sleep shall be raised. All other signs shall be destroyed.

Article 6 — On the gate to this field, consecrated by a religious respect for the ashes of the dead, shall be written “Death is an eternal sleep.”

In essence this was a moderate decree. It respected the freedom of belief and even that of religion. I know full well that the inscription “Death is an eternal sleep” has the pretension of being a materialist formula and it was thus possible to say that it was official materialism, mandatory for the dead if not for the living. In truth the inscription is more infantile that aggressive. It is even more anti-scientific than it is anti-Christian. Sleep is a function of life; death is its dissolution. To speak of sleep means flattering the need to survive; it means prolonging the form of life, enveloped only in silence and repose. Death is more dramatic and poignant: it is the dissolution of form, the dissolution of consciousness. Man asks if this dissolution is apparent or real, provisional or definitive. This is the problem of death. It is too facile to elude it through a myth as childish as the concepts of savages. What is more, Fouché’s decree respected (it couldn’t touch) the official and constitutional organization of religion. It limited itself to restricting cults to the interior of their temples. It was a law for the regulating of religions; it wasn’t a law that was decisive and profound.